The Doctor Stands

Review of The Doctor Falls
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

The fact that I came out of this episode without a bad taste in my mouth pretty much makes it the best Moffat finale ever, as far as I'm concerned. Not to say that it was an over-the-top awesome episode—it was very good, though not great—but it didn't have the characteristic "tripped at the finish line" feeling I usually get from a Moffat two-part finale.

Coming off last week's gut-punch, I was truly worried about how Bill's story would be resolved. I honestly expected either full-on tragedy (as implied by the end of World Enough and Time) or something out of left field that left me squinting in puzzlement at the screen.

Frankly, I found a combination thereof most likely, e.g., a Frankenstein's monster replacement body in the same style that Nardole seems to have accumulated parts over his adventures (h/t to Verity! podcast for that thought). You can imagine my unease, then, when the first character we follow in the pre-credits sequence is a young Black girl; my first, disturbing thought was that she would end up providing the body that Bill's mind would eventually occupy. I cannot fully express my relief that such was not the case.

Given how focused I initially was on Bill, it's a testament to the execution of this plot that I didn't feel that everything else—and there was so much else!—was a mere distraction. With five main cast members, there was a lot to cover to keep them all relevant, and damned if Moffat didn't manage it.

Within the details of plot, every character's arc was about endings and new beginnings. Bill obviously had ended her normal lifespan as a human pretty much the moment she entered the Conversion Theatre. The Doctor is injured enough in the shuttle craft crash at the beginning (and in the later battle) that his current Regeneration is coming to an end. Nardole's travels in the TARDIS ended with their first steps onto Floor 0000. And Missy and the Master are their own self-contained ending/new beginning.

Let's take those in reverse order and examine them one by one.

Missy and the Master together are a delight. When they're egging each other on, they're a pair I love to hate. When they are at odds with each other, though... That's when sparks really fly. The Doctor makes one of his most impassioned speeches ever to the two of them before they scarper, imploring them to stand with him. "Who I am is where I stand," he tells them, and the Master haughtily ignores him. We can tell, though, that the words are landing with their real target.

The way the final interaction between Missy and the Master plays out is perfection. Both characters are true to form, and I can finally fully believe she was on the up-and-up this whole series. And though Missy is gone, I don't believe the Master was right; that's not their last Regeneration.

Moving on, I'd say Nardole's story was perhaps the least satisfyingly resolved. While I loved the way he seemed to care about the locals, and that the clear answer to "which one of us is stronger" is Nardole, it felt like he was given a raw deal. For some, that pastoral lifestyle with the prospect of being the hero at some unspecified future date might appeal, it doesn't strike me as Nardole's style, and I was left pitying him his lot. It was, at least, clearly a new beginning.

At this point I feel compelled to point out the major drawback of this episode, as it directly affects Nardole's story: the time dilation story conceit. There are so many plot holes centering on the timing differences between various parts of the ship that I can't even keep track of them.

First, I'm irritated that the clocks they showed in the last episode appear to be inaccurate. As I pointed out last time, according to the readings on those clocks, two days up top were the equivalent of a thousand years at the bottom. Further, Bill had only been there a year when we got our second glimpse. Now we're told she was there for ten years during what was maybe ten minutes on Floor 0000? And it took the elevators two hours of bottom-time to traverse the whole ship? None of that adds up.

Worse, the shuttle craft readily takes our recurring characters from Floor 1056 to Floor 507 (as the Cybermen later propel themselves), yet the Doctor claims that it's a "mathematical impossibility" for the elevators to take them back to Floor 0000 where his TARDIS is. "By the time we get to the bridge, they'll have had thousands of years to work out how to stop us." The inconsistencies here would drive me to distraction if I tried to make sense of them. Instead (to mix universes), I allowed myself to submit to Moffat's Jedi mind-trick and pretend it all worked as presented. That way, I could appreciate the thematic and character through-lines of the story.

Moving back to character arcs, then, the Doctor's is one of not only endings and beginnings, but also of identity. (In fact, all the major players except Nardole got to struggle with identity. If Missy's interactions with the Master don't count as an identity crisis, I don't know what does.) He is clear with his best frenemies that his sense of self is well tied to how he approaches hopeless situations like these, where innocent lives are at stake. This sense of self has become of vital importance to him.

It's obvious in his expression when Bill tells him, "I don't want to live if I can't be me anymore. Do you understand?" and his only reply is, "Yeah." It's equally obvious in the way he viciously represses his body's regenerative instinct over and over again. "I can't keep on being somebody else," he grouses at the TARDIS when she takes him to that mysterious Somewhere at the end.

The Doctor's crisis deserves more attention, but first I need to return to Bill. The Master's scheme for her was magnificent in its cruelty, though of course he couldn't have known she would retain her sense of self. I loved that there was a solid, story-based explanation for how she was able to do so, and the change in her on-screen presentation with shifting POV was a wonderful storytelling trick.

Most importantly to me, she is—for the audience—still herself, and she gets some fabulous character moments. "You said you could fix this," she says, confronting the Doctor with her reality. "Were you lying?" It's when he denies a lie that she again exhibits that special ability to see things from just a slightly different angle than everybody else. "Were you right?"

This head-on acknowledgment of her situation may have been what gave both Bill and the Doctor internal permission to move on. He doesn't feel bound to keep living in order to rescue her, and she doesn't feel bound to stay with what appears to be his corpse once she's become like Heather-of-the-puddle. (So smug that I called that, by the way!) Although this feels like a mostly satisfying way to conclude Bill's story, I don't want this to be the end. Part of me still wishes this were a situation like Teagan leaving the Doctor between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity: gone temporarily in the storyline, but always intended to return from the production side.

What we know for sure is that Capaldi is leaving in the next episode, and the Doctor has already begun that pre-regeneration period of being slightly out of his mind. In Moffat's version of the Doctor's Reward, Twelve remembers his many post-Hiatus Companions before reliving several regenerative moments: "Sontarans perverting the course of human history! I don't want to go. When the Doctor... When the Doctor was me. When the Doctor was me..."

Clearly the TARDIS has an opinion about his refusal to go gentle into the next good night. We can but speculate for now about what she has in store for him. For my part, I think she's trying to remind him that no matter the changes in outward personality or appearance, he is always at hearts the Doctor. He will always be himself. Or herself. And no matter what, the universe needs the Doctor to keep standing, right where he's always been.

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